May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be the response to the Word that you hope to hear from us O God. And we humbly ask for your corrective whispers in our ears so that we might adjust the trajectory of our journey in a way that aligns with your life-giving wish for us. Amen.
The scripture story we’ve just heard is filled with impatience. There is a sense that this journey through the desert is just taking far too long and isn’t providing the promised result that the Israelites were looking for. Their impatience is turning to despair. So when Moses goes off to the mountain to be in God’s presence, this becomes the perfect excuse for the people to find a quick fix to their problems. What we need is to build a golden calf and start sacrificing to other Gods who might step in and give us the satisfaction we want. Even Aaron, one of the leaders of the community, seems willing to go along with this. How much longer do they need to suffer through this?
I think that the early Israelites and the church today have a lot in common that way. We’re frustrated. We long for the days when all we had to do was open our doors and people would flock to our churches. In the late 50s and 60s the United Church was opening a new congregation every week. What we had to offer was de rigueur… it was even a societal expectation. Going to church was a cultural norm. We had all the factors going in our favour. In Egypt, the Israelites had food and a roof over their heads, and now they were wandering the desert with no end in sight.
Mainline churches like ours seem to be wandering in our own deserts these days. Wondering what happened to the comforts of years gone by. We may be tempted to jump on the new shiny ideas that will keep our churches alive. We have plenty of books written by authors claiming they have the solution to church decline. Just do X and suddenly your struggles will be over. Your church will be filled with people putting big cheques in the collection plate. All of them golden calves in their own right.
Sure, some churches have found formulas that worked for them. It’s not all bunk. But the thing they have in common isn’t the programme they are running or the marketing they used to talk to people. What all successful congregations have done is to stop worrying about how to find the money to keep the lights on and to focus on actually meeting the needs of the communities around them. They have become relevant.
Let’s face it, people of this generation and possibly the one before that have voted with their feet. We are not at the top of the priority list. The United Church has done some interesting research amongst the unchurched and the barriers to their participation can be boiled down to a few key things:
- Walking through the door of a church is a big step. It isn’t easy for someone to walk into a place filled with strangers and be vulnerable. Most people have ideas of what goes on in church from movies and from the news… but some of that is a turn-off and scares them off. What’s more is that they are rarely welcomed properly. In the first four months in my role as Regional Executive Minister, I decided to pop into churches in my three regions as a stranger. I chose places where I didn’t know anyone and I wasn’t known enough in the church yet to be recognized. In my 12 stealth visits, I was directly and warmly welcomed in only three. In one case, someone stopped me as I was getting out of my car and said, you must be new here! And proceeded to go into the church and invited me to sit with them during the service. That was a gold star welcome. But our churches are often cliques that are hard to break into. Welcoming newcomers needs to be intentional. It can’t just happen spontaneously. That only works for people who have a strong determination to join this church and will force it to happen on their own. That’s a very small percentage of folks.
- They don’t understand what we are doing on a Sunday morning. The true unchurched don’t really understand prayer. The music in style and message seems foreign to them. They stand and sit (and in some churches kneel) and they are worried about not understanding the code and doing something wrong. They don’t know the Lord’s Prayer and when everyone around them starts reciting it from memory, they feel excluded and like they don’t belong. In some churches, we don’t even have websites that tell people when our services are happening. I should note that this congregation is not one of those! We aren’t even thinking about what it’s like to be a newcomer to the church – and we certainly don’t give people the sense that we want them to understand it.
- They don’t see the value of taking time out of their schedules to be part of a church. A little conversation after the church service about the weather or last night’s hockey game isn’t sufficient. If they have ventured through the door, they are seeking deeper connection and community. If you don’t demonstrate that you’re a home for that, then they will move on.
In the passage we read from Exodus, God tells Moses that the early Israelites are a ‘stiff-necked people’. This is one of the most powerful images of the church today that I have come across. You know what a stiff neck looks like, right? Your head has trouble moving from side to side. You can only see what is directly in front of you. You aren’t seeing the bigger picture.
We are so focused on doing things the way we did them in the 1950s that we lose sight of what the world around us is actually looking for. The world around us has changed significantly in the last sixty years or so. We don’t need to look very far… we’ve been to the moon for the first time and the technology in our pockets exceeds what the first manned mission to the moon had on board. The mobility of people means that communities are changing. And yet, our worship, the one thing that most of us are hanging on to, looks like it did in 1925 with some minor tweaks.
What if we were less stiff-necked and offered people time for conversation, for prayer circles that demonstrated that we cared about each other.
I’ll share a story about the community of faith in Wakefield Quebec where I was a member. A small town, for sure, about a half-hour north of Ottawa. There was a delegation of folks from Wakefield that planned to do an exchange program with a Dene community in the Northwest Territories. None of them were members of our church, but we decided to crane our necks to see what was happening in our community and offer something that was relevant to it. So we invited them to come to a Sunday service just before they were preparing to leave to offer them a blessing on their journey. About half of them came to the service for the blessing and during the prayers of the people, someone stood up and shared how much she appreciated the support she had from the community during her cancer treatments and the food, prayer and connection were powerful in her recovery. After the service, I overheard two of the exchange participants in the parking lot saying… wow… it was amazing to see how a community could be so supportive of one another and wouldn’t it be great if they could feel that kind of closeness and connection. Those two people become regular members of the church in the months that followed.
What we do on Sunday is great, but it may not always meet the needs that are identified in the world around us. We need to unstiffen our necks and see how we meet the needs of people in a way that makes them want to be part of our communities. That we’re scratching an itch they have. That their experience here is so great that they go and tell their friends… you have to come here… I found something really special. When you find a store that has things that you need and it’s a bargain, you can’t stop talking about it. When you’ve seen a play or a movie that was excellent, you tell everyone to see it. Imagine if our churches were places where people connected deeply and truly felt God’s transforming presence… don’t you think they might go and tell others what they experienced?
Now let me just say that whatever we offer, it should be rooted in faith. We sometimes think that answering the Spirit’s call is about providing a food bank or lobbying the government about climate change. Those are valid responses to God’s call, but there are many organizations that can do these things (and are doing these things) better than we can. What is our unique gift as a church? We are more than a non-profit charity that does good work. Our primary role in this world is to help people see the work of God in action… to be transformed by the Spirit… to walk in the sandals of Christ.
The first thing we need to do is turn our necks, look beside us, see what’s happening there and see how we can, from a faith perspective, be relevant. To be a place where people are excited to come for connection and belonging… to explore their faith and their values.
Secondly, we need to unstuck ourselves from what we’ve always done. What could we offer that’s different and meets unmet spiritual needs. Poll after poll we hear that people have a spiritual hunger… we have all the tools to provide a feast, but they aren’t finding anything on the menu they like. You’ve started doing that in this community with your Walking Through Grief programme… a way for those who are grieving to share their experience with others and create connections. You’ve turned your head to one side and seen a need that you are helping to meet. Don’t stop doing that.
Thirdly, we have to be willing to be changed by those who join us. If the church is to have a future, it needs to emerge and evolve in ways we can’t even imagine. We need to be open to that transformation. It’s what we call the Holy Spirit’s work. May we be open to it.
God wants us to have full use of our necks, to constantly be on the lookout for places to minister, to provide a spiritual home in ways that will respond to our current context. Even if we’ve been a stiff-necked church for a few decades, it isn’t too late to look around. It is time for us to move from a church where all are welcome, to a place where all are welcomed. So be patient my friends. The desert journey may feel long, but I’m convinced God’s not done with us yet. Thanks be to God!
- Rev. Éric Hébert-Daly is the Regional Executive Minister of Conseil régional Nakonha:ka Regional Council, Eastern Ontario Outaouais Regional Council and East Central Ontario Regional Council of The United Church of Canada. This reflection was shared with the congregation of Hudson Pastoral Charge on October 15, 2023.